On 10 January 2017, in a special session, the Parliament of Uganda honoured Denis Onyango for his ‘outstanding accomplishment’, which stood as testimony to discipline, humility and focus.
The shot-stopper, who has been dubbed ‘Africa’s Mr Safe Hands was born on 15 May 1987, Denis Masinde Onyango would have been Kenyan had he been born four kilometres east of his Maili Munana village. Instead, he was born and raised in Kampala, Uganda’s central business district.
His career journey started at Nsambya FC, before SC Villa, then a top club in Kampala spotted him in 2003. The SC Villa coach, Serbian Milutin Sredojevic, aka Micho, had organised a friendly match with a lower-division side when he spotted a tall, big-bodied teenager with an impressive raw talent and height. Even though Villa was not looking for goalkeepers at the time, Micho, who would later become the coach of the Uganda Cranes, was in no doubt that Onyango was a talent worth recruiting.
His career was not always a bed of roses for Onyango, who has since played against the world’s best, including Cristiano Ronaldo, the 2016 Ballon d’Or and Best Player winner at the FIFA Club World Cup tournament.
Onyango started out at Villa Park as the fourth-choice keeper, trailing Postnet Omwony, then Uganda’s first-choice keeper, Hannington Kalyesubula, his main understudy, and Matthew Ottamax Owino, a highly talented but very peculiar Kenyan stopper. But Onyango was patient and kept training hard as he awaited his chance.
Onyango rose through the ranks to win the league with SC Villa in 2004. Following a brief stint in Ethiopia, Onyango joined SuperSport United in 2006 and won the South African championship for all three the seasons he was there. In 2010 he moved to Black Aces. In 2011, he joined Mamelodi Sundowns where, strangely, he once again started out as a very marginal fourth-choice keeper and had to spend the 2012/13 season out on loan at Bidvest Wits FC.
In just two seasons upon returning, he went on to win the league, the Champions League and the CAF award, the most accolades ever won by a single Ugandan player in a calendar year.
No matter which route he takes, Onyango has inked his name not only in the hearts of Ugandans but also in the history of African football as a disciplined, determined and zealous player who worked his way up from the bottom to achieve the seemingly impossible.